For at least the last two years, the Left has been imploring the Democratic Party and its loyal voters not to choose Joe Biden as their nominee. I even wrote an entire book about it. The argument against Biden is well known and easy to find, and I’m not going to bother repeating it here.
Unfortunately, Biden is now indisputably the Democratic nominee, and will be facing Donald Trump in the general election. As inadequate as Biden and the conservatives who are propping him up are to handle this moment in history, no one reading this wants to see a second Trump term. But despite what polling currently shows, it is far from assured Biden will deliver even that result, and he is entering the race in a weaker position than Clinton this time in 2016, after she had already weathered months of criticism and press scrutiny — the kind to which Biden has so far not been treated.
Already, some members of the liberal pundit-sphere are calling for a moratorium on criticism of Biden. Besides being a repugnant idea for any journalist, this is not sustainable: though liberal news outlets might view their top priority for the next seven months as getting Biden into the White House at all costs, there’s no guarantee mainstream news outlets will see their jobs this way, and they will almost certainly start applying serious scrutiny to Biden again now that Bernie Sanders is out of the race.
So as someone who literally wrote the book on why Biden would not be a great nominee or president, let me give the Democratic Party and Biden’s campaign some free advice.
First, Biden needs to abandon some of the core reflexes and belief systems that have driven his political decision-making over the past forty years. In 2001, Biden declared that Bill Clinton’s “Third Way” was “where the American people are,” that the party’s message “was settled in 1992,” and that adopting “class warfare and populism” would lead to Republican victory. Whatever one thought about that argument then, it’s undeniably wrong now. Clintonism is dead, buried by Trump in 2016 when he disingenuously outflanked Hillary on select issues such as war and trade, and converted significant parts of the Democratic voter coalition to his side. Attempting to rerun her campaign against Trump is a recipe for almost certain failure, particularly in this current crisis.
Biden’s own history points the way for this. Biden initially ran as a New Deal liberal and upset a long-serving, beloved senator using an economically populist platform tailored to the times. As the waning “liberal consensus” of the postwar years was replaced by a neoliberal one aimed at cutting taxes and shrinking government, Biden moved to the right to win reelection, transforming into an anti-busing fiscal conservative who wanted to put every federal spending program on the chopping block every four years. This is the path he’s followed ever since.
Biden and the people running his candidacy need to recognize a similar political shift is happening again. The neoliberal order is on its last legs, and is in much worse shape than the liberal one it replaced in the late 1970s when Biden was coming up. When the Trump administration is offering to pay for millions of people’s health care, and when a conservative Republican is taking his policy cues from Denmark, it’s a sign the political winds are rapidly changing. But don’t take it from me: listen to the capitalist-to-its-bones Financial Times, which recently argued for “radical reforms” aimed at “reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades.”
In other words, the kind of shift that defined Biden’s political trajectory is happening again, only in reverse, and all he needs to do is the exact same thing he did the first time: swim with the tide.
Unfortunately, this will mean forgetting forty years’ worth of the conventional wisdom that’s shaped Biden’s career and choices, and his career-long allergy to bold government programs. For Biden and his handlers, this will require understanding why he actually won the Democratic primary, and recognizing what it means for November’s election.
As exit polls attest, and as Biden’s own wife seems to understand, Democrats didn’t vote for Biden because they found his policy ideas or vision particularly compelling, but because they believed he was the most likely candidate to win over non-Democrats and beat Trump. Now that the primary’s over, the party needs to, at least privately, acknowledge that was a myth, given that in nearly every state, Sanders beat Biden among independents, the nation’s largest voting bloc, who also tend to be younger.
There are many things about Sanders’s appeal to independents that Biden can’t replicate. But he can adopt some of the policies he championed, first among which should be Medicare for All, which is surging in support as millions lose their employer-based health insurance with every week of lockdown.
Deficits have never mattered, and they particularly don’t matter now in the midst of a crisis where Congress has bipartisanly thrown trillions of dollars of cash at corporations. It’s not too late for Biden to say he was wrong, that changing circumstances have led him to reassess Medicare for All, and that he now thinks it’s a good idea. The longer he and the rest of the party delays, the greater the likelihood that Trump cynically embraces some semblance of universal health care as his own position. Such a development would be a disaster for Biden and the Democrats.
What Biden shouldn’t do is what he did last week: offer insulting quarter-measures like forgiving student debt for only some borrowers and lowering the eligibility age of Medicare by a mere five years, a plan that is not only less ambitious than Hillary Clinton in 2016, but also Bill Clinton in 1998. This is the kind of Reagan-era-hangover approach that sank Clinton in 2016, and is hardly serious in the face of the current crisis — not to mention that it does nothing for the younger voters he desperately needs to turn out to vote.
Biden can poach a whole host of other policies from Sanders beyond Medicare for All. Sanders’s list of potential executive actions should be a no-brainer since they don’t require Congress, chief among them legalizing marijuana, allowing imports of prescription drugs from Canada, and declaring climate change a national emergency. All of these would signal he’s serious about the issues most on the minds of Democratic voters, particularly those who back Sanders, as well as making tangible improvements to the lives of a broad swath of the public beyond the reach of the party. For that matter, take up Sanders’s medical debt forgiveness plan, which, at only $81 billion, is a steal — a fraction of the $6.4 trillion cost for the post-9/11 wars Biden forced on the public. And he should make it clear if ideas like a rent freeze or utility shutoff moratorium area actually part of his coronavirus plan, and regularly hammer those and, hopefully, other ideas already proposed by progressive lawmakers.
If he’s nervous about being labelled a big spending liberal, that ship has sailed. The Trump campaign is already running ads painting Biden as indistinguishable from Bernie Sanders; he may as well embrace it. Backing away in the face of such attacks will only mean alienating the part of the Democratic base already skeptical of Biden’s progressive bona fides, while Republican-leaning voters will probably do what they’ve always done when faced with a choice between a sitting right-wing extremist and a liberal posing as one: go for the genuine article. Biden should think of these various measures in the same way he thought of war and his anti–drug-and-crime crusades: so vital to both national security and his own political survival, it’s simply insulated from worries about the deficit.
Promises and pieces of paper won’t be enough, however, not just because of decades of Democratic betrayal, but also Biden’s own very serious credibility problem. He can overcome this by heeding the recent call of groups like the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats and proving his commitment through personnel appointments: progressive lawmakers to head his transition, advisers from his more left-wing rivals to develop policy and serve in his administration, and at the very least, keeping corporate figures like Michael Bloomberg, Jamie Dimon, Rahm Emanuel — especially Rahm Emanuel — and other, lesser figures like them at least one hundred feet from the White House at all times.
Hell, appoint Jay Inslee, who had one of the Democratic field’s only serious climate plans, as EPA administrator, interior secretary, climate czar, or whatever else, in the name of party unity or a team of rivals or whatever other hackneyed PR messaging the campaign needs to use. Whatever Biden has said and done on the campaign trail, voters need assurances that the people who will actually be running his administration are serious about the crises facing the country.
That’s the other thing: Democrats, please do not make this campaign about Joe Biden. Already, Democrats and even Sanders are deploying the lines that Biden is a “decent man” who embodies “effective, honest, trusted leadership.” It mirrors the Biden campaign’s overall strategy up to now, of presenting Biden as the antithesis of Trump who will “restore the soul of America.”
This is a mistake. Biden is a compromised candidate who has depended on the media and his fellow candidates ignoring the growing list of personal scandals and red flags that surround him. He’s been credibly accused of sexual assault; repeatedly encouraged people to vote in the middle of a pandemic; regularly loses his temper with ordinary voters; lies constantly about himself and his political positions; and has several pending family corruption scandals, including a brother accused of fraud in court, over a scheme in which he allegedly used candidate Biden as bait to lure a firm into bankruptcy.
Beyond this, Biden has been on the wrong side of history on almost everything, has done profound damage to working- and middle-class people, and has an at best checkered record on the issues that today are assumed to most animate Democrats, like abortion rights and racial justice. Whatever contrast exists between Trump and Biden now will quickly evaporate once the GOP attack machine gets rolling, and when media scrutiny of Biden restarts. Insisting on Biden’s wholesomeness even as all these issues are litigated and relitigated risks making a mockery of everything for which the Democratic Party has been claiming to stand. And we haven’t even gotten to the fact that Biden is struggling to even read his own coronavirus plan off a sheet of paper live on TV.
Instead, the campaign should continue what it already has been doing: making Biden an incidental feature of his campaign. Allow Biden to recede into the background and center the campaign around a team of capable Democrats with big ideas undoing the damage Trump has created and unraveling the panoply of crises hitting the American public. Once people learn he’s not the kindly Uncle Joe persona crafted for him over the last decade, Biden may well end up his campaign’s biggest liability. Rather than tasking the Democratic Party’s leading lights with defending the indefensible, better to deemphasize Biden’s role.
I’m under no illusions that Biden and the Democrats behind him will listen to any of this advice, or even read it in the first place. Nor do I believe that, given their corporate funding, they would be allowed to do half of what I’m proposing even if they wanted to. And even if Biden did all this, there’s still a good chance he’d lose, given his shaky public performances, and the fact that he has little skill and experience in defending a program of economic populism. After watching the mess Elizabeth Warren made of Sanders’s Medicare for All plan, it’s hard to imagine the Joe Biden we’ve seen so far in 2020 competently selling the idea to voters.
Still, if Biden and Democrats of his generation could cravenly sell out their principles for political expediency and pretend to be something they’re not once, they can do it again, only for the good. For the first time in a long time, the direction things are heading mean the politically expedient thing is also the right thing to do. And if they’re as desperate as they claim to find out how to get young, left-wing voters on board, they’re now being expressly told how to do it. The ball’s in their court.